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IPHC to consider lower halibut catch limits: Stock concerns will be big issue during commission’s annual meeting next week

Daily News Staff Writer

Southeast Alaska could see major halibut catch limit reductions for 2018 following regulatory actions later this month.

In its annual meeting beginning Monday, the International Pacific Halibut Commission will consider implementing coastwide harvest reductions in the neighborhood of 20 percent less than 2017’s total harvest for commercial, sport and subsistence fishing.

That number — 20 percent — comes from decision tables produced by IPHC staff. According to these tables, a harvest reduction of about 20 percent (by weight) would be necessary to meet the commission’s sustainability goal, or reference level, for the stock. The reference level is a 46-percent spawning potential ratio.

The commission isn’t obligated to adhere to these reference levels, but they are taken into serious consideration by the commission during its decision-making process.

In Southeast Alaska, a 46-percent SPR level would also result in a 20-percent reduction in halibut harvests by weight from 2017, which had a limit of about 7 million pounds.

Though it has measured a 10-percent reduction in the abundance of halibut in terms of weight, the commission is even more concerned with the strength of upcoming year classes, meaning groups of halibut that are not yet mature.

“I’m really concerned about the lack of those juveniles coming through the system,” IPHC Commissioner Robert Alverson said. “So for me, I think that all of the areas will need some level of reduction.”

The commission's decision will likely affect regional commercial and sport fishing industries.

According to Linda Behnken, also an IPHC commissioner, the species is a key piece of the Southeast Alaska economy.

“Halibut is one of the primary economic drivers for all of area 2C [Southeast Alaska], with a significant amount of the 2C quota owned by people who live here and something like 80 percent of the quota processed in this area that comes out of this area.” Behnken said. “So it’s very important economically to the fishermen, to the processing sector and to the sport sector.

According to Scott Walker, Ketchikan area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, halibut is a significant part of Ketchikan’s commercial fishing industry. He said that many local commercial fishermen have taken up halibut fishing due to increased restrictions on other species.

“As years go on here, it’s a more critical part of people’s business plans to have additional fisheries in the winter time, or in the spring or fall,” Walker said. “It’s a pretty decent fishery.”

He also said that fish processors in town deal with halibut, though not all do because of its in-depth regulatory system.

The charter industry could also be affected by continued significant regulations.

Jeff Wedekind, who owns the Ketchikan fishing lodge Chinook Shores, said that halibut restrictions during the past few years have negatively affected his business.

“It’s had an impact over the last three or four years, because every year we’ve gone to keeping smaller and smaller fish,” he said. “I’ve already lost clients.”

Most of Wedekind’s customers are interested in catching both salmon and halibut. Those who are particularly interested in halibut have already gone elsewhere, he said.

The harm caused by halibut regulations could be amplified, as significant harvest reductions for king salmon are being concurrently considered by the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

But whether actual restrictions will be as severe as the commission’s reference levels suggest remains to be determined.

“There are a lot of factors that weigh in the public process,” Behnken said. “And inputs and stakeholders have a definite effect on that decision making process. So it’s too early for me to say.”

The IPHC is a U.S.-Canadian entity established by convention in 1923 to maintain the levels of halibut stocks along the Pacific Coast from California through Alaska. This year’s meeting runs from Jan. 22 through Jan. 26 and takes place in Portland, Oregon.